“The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong,” wrote Mahatma Gandhi. Probably because forgiving is hard work, especially when some deeds don’t seem worthy of forgiveness. But the difficult work to forgive and forget is worth it: Research has found that forgiveness, among other benefits, can improve psychosocial and psychological well-being and decrease paranoia resulting from negative interpersonal experiences.
Forgiving can even bestow some degree of peace of mind upon the forgiver. How? Because forgiveness is not about making other people feel better about their transgressions. It is about lightening the burden that their transgressions have left upon you. And this lightening effect isn’t just metaphorical.
One study in the ongoing research of Felipe De Brigard, an associate professor at Duke University, asked participants to “recall an event in which someone else had harmed them emotionally or physically in the past 10 years.” Following this, participants were randomly sorted into two categories—to forgive or not to forgive. The results found that while neither group differed “in the physical or emotional details of the past wrongdoings… those in the forgiveness group tended to experience the memories with less intensity and ruminated less on those events.” An additional trial found that, when looking at the effect of traumatic memories, those who forgave the wrongdoer were less likely to consider the experience as “central to their identity” or let it affect their lives.
How to forgive and forget
So are you ready to lighten up? In his seminal book, Forgiveness Is a Choice, Robert Enright, Ph.D., co-founder of the International Forgiveness Institute and a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, divides the process of forgiveness into four steps:
Be honest with yourself about your anger and hurt, and assess the full damage the injustice has caused in your life. If a parent made you feel inadequate growing up, does your self-esteem still suffer? Do you look for love and validation in unhealthy ways?
2. Decide to forgive and forget.
You must make the conscious decision to forgive your “injurers,” as Enright calls them, and give up any vengeful behaviors on your part. If, for example, a coworker once stole an idea and you’ve been denying them credit on other projects ever since, it’s time to change your tactic. The negativity and anger you cling to won’t do you any good in the long run, Enright says.
It takes effort to understand and empathize with someone who has hurt you. Enright suggests asking yourself a few questions: What was life like for this person while growing up? What psychological wounds might they be nursing? What extra pressure or stress was the person experiencing at the time they offended you? Then think of a small gift you could offer this person. It might be a smile, a handshake, a returned phone call or simply more tolerance the next time you are with them. Keep in mind, though, that forgiveness and reconciliation are not the same. If you were or are in an abusive relationship of any kind, for example, your forgiveness can and should come from afar.
Find meaning and purpose in what you have been through, Enright encourages. How can you help others who might be hurting? If you’ve been a victim of racial bias, for example, you might decide to become more active in civil rights causes. In the emotional relief of letting go, Enright says, you might discover “the paradox of forgiveness: as we give to others the gifts of mercy, generosity and moral love, we ourselves are healed.”
This article originally appeared in the February 2017 issue of SUCCESS magazine and has been updated. Photo by loreanto/Shutterstock